You know those bathrooms with mirrors on each side that make it look like there’s an infinite number of yous? Where you can strain your eyes to find the end of you but you continue, uninterrupted, far beyond your ability to comprehend? My dad had a bathroom like that and I used to look at myself and wonder if one of those reflections (the third one back? the 27th?) was the real me and the one looking in the mirror was a replica. Maybe one of those girls was confident, brash, unashamed. Maybe that one way in the back was successful, popular, and unbothered. If only the one standing there looking could swap out, change places with her, let her brave the halls at Jonas Salk Junior High. But for all my imagining of the limitless potential of these shadow selves, when I took a step away from the mirrors, it was still just the same me, and I still had no idea who she was.
Empathic mirroring is what we do with babies. They make a cute face and we beam back at them, smiling. They yawn and we open our mouths wide and say, “Oh my goodness what a big yawn! Are you sleepy? YES. You’re so sleepy!”. They delight at being seen, being reflected, being shown who they are. The process of doing this for children, day after day and far past the baby stage, is how we all learn who we are. When mirror-ers say things like, “you’re so funny” and “you really think big”, or “you have the most beautiful eyes.”, the mirror-ed then take those messages in and go on to turn that feedback into a self-image. Eventually, they will carry those beliefs to the world. They will convey to others: “I’m good at making people laugh” and “I’m a visionary”, and sometimes, “I need a nap now.” When repeated often enough, the child’s belief in herself becomes unshakeable, even in the face of new, less positive feedback. That’s why I always laugh when I hear someone say, “what? Is it tattooed across my forehead that I [fill in the blank]?” I laugh because the answer is, in a way, YES.
I did not get much of this reflection from my dad. Or, I did, but only in a peripheral way. My qualities were seen through the lens of his acceptance of me. If I made him laugh, I was funny. If I talked about something that interested him, I was smart. If I beat his friends at pool, I was tough. But, like a hole in a bucket, even these moments of positive regard eventually dripped out, leaving me empty and in search of the next faucet to fill me up.
As I get older, I’m curious about who my dad saw in his own mirror, and what was reflected back to him. Who was the real Dennis Pulice? Which image was accurate? The Don Juan? The Willy Loman? The Jack Daniels? The Archie Bunker? Did he even consider such things?
Dennis was an imp. (Is imp the right word? For some reason when I think of an imp I picture some little sprite bouncing from place to place. No, Dennis wasn’t nimble like that. What I want to say is that he was devilish and charming, like an Italian Michael Keaton who would have absolutely voted for Donald Tr***. ) The point is, he was a round, not-too-tall, fun-loving hedonist who got as much joy out of driving a ski boat up the Sacramento River as I did when he bestowed his mercurial approval unto me. He worked for the weekend and played like it was his job. Which is not to say he was a slouch. No. I remember something about Salesman of the Year and holding the record for x-ray machine sales. Hard as he worked, I got the idea that his employer was just another in a long line of patsys. Money was Dennis’ god, status his savior, and you were wise not to interfere with his worship.
As a person who over-uses the word unpack, I can tell you that working out my daddy issues has been quite the task. Baggage, yes, but somehow that term doesn’t quite suffice. A matrix? Almost. Ok, actually, I’ve got it. What I have is a big, wild tangle. Yes, a tangle of undifferentiated emotions that I have been working to smooth for as long as I have been thinking about such things. A gnarled mess of insecurity, misperceptions, unmet expectations on my end and, perhaps, unfulfilled promises on his. Whatever we’re going to call, it, I know this much: I spent the first 40 plus years of my life obsessing about why my father never loved me, and never considered asking why he didn’t love himself.
What creates an alcoholic sociopath? What constellation of nature, nurture, disappointments, and triumphs coalesce to form someone who seemed to care for literally no one but himself? I did try to ask him, but talking to my dad about his family was like trying to get trade secrets from Lee Iacocca. All I can figure from the scant information that I’ve been able to gather is that his parents were strict but loving, very Catholic, and very traditional. They spoke Italian and Spanish but not to their children, and lived a forward-facing life of daily mass and local politics. Gammie cooked for scores of people out of a pink oven in her fairy-sized kitchen, and no matter what time my teenaged father came home, she was up, waiting, with a hot meal just for him. Grandpa was old school - a real upright guy. Rules were rules, not invitations for debate. Maybe by the time they got to their third child, they were too tired to mirror him. Or, maybe they saw something in their son that he could never see in himself. Maybe the mirror reflected an image he felt he could not maintain.
Because I didn’t get enough data at a young age about who I am, or because the information I did receive was so intertwined with the needs of the person who was giving it, it should come as no revelation that who I was, from birth until recently, was a person who figured out who you wanted me to be and proceeded to pretend that I had always been that exact girl. As if my infinite reflection in those mirrors were a closet of selves, I would pluck one from the collection, zip it on, and await your blessing. With my dad, the mirror was foggy. When it cleared, the image was streaked. Am I a good girl or a bad girl? Am I a girl the boys will like or am I a nag like his his ex-wife? Am I sexy like the girls in his centerfolds or am I the kind who wouldn’t warrant one of his famous looking-backwards-while-driving ogles?
I remember the exact moment I stopped seeking my father’s approval. It coincided with the very same moment he started seeking mine. No longer an unknowable monolith of all things male, I saw him with frightening clarity. We were standing in his driveway in front of a U-Haul. My boyfriend and I were moving across the country. He was hugging me and crying. He whispered into my ear, “I’m sorry” as he dropped a hundred dollar bill into my pocket. I felt my jaw set and my fists clench. I didn’t have to say anything. As he looked into my eyes, he knew. It was too late.
Now the job of mirror is mine. My three children look for themselves in my eyes every day. My seven year old daughter becomes heartbroken when I don’t have the same enthusiasm for a tiny toy puppy that she does. She wants us to be exactly the same, at least until such time as she will hope fervently to never have one single thing in common with me. My thirteen year old son comes to me in certain moments when he’s fighting with his brother. Knowing we have similar temperaments, he will look pleadingly into my eyes, imploring me to take his side, to prove that, of course, he is right, could only be right, could never be wrong. Even the oldest one. Almost fifteen, I will catch him receiving information and giving me a quick glance before responding, scanning my face for confirmation that what he feels is ok. He checks in. He’s saying: “Am I a good boy? Am I lovable? Will I make it?”
I look back at him. There is no equivocation.